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Russia Investigates NGO For 'Undesirable' Links


Let's try to figure out why Russia is cracking down on a hate crime watchdog group. The group is called the SOVA Center, and it's being scrutinized for once having had ties to two American organizations. Those organizations are the National Endowment for Democracy and the Soros Foundation, founded by billionaire financier George Soros. NPR's Lucian Kim caught up with the center's director, and Lucian joins us now from Moscow on the line.

Good morning.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KELLY: So this director's name is Alexander Verkhovsky. What exactly does his group do, and why are they being targeted?

KIM: Well, the word sova in Russian means owl, and this group sees itself as a think tank, a research group that monitors hate crimes, xenophobia, that kind of thing. Like other NGOs in Russia, they receive significant foreign financing, and that makes them vulnerable in the current political climate. In this particular case, they're accused of publishing hyperlinks to past donors - as you said, the National Endowment for Democracy and the Soros Foundation. The Russian government considers both of those organizations undesirable, and it's illegal to disseminate information about those groups. Now, Verkhovsky, for his part, says, you know, publishing these hyperlinks on the website is, you know, like having footnotes in an academic research paper. He had nothing to hide. It's something that happened in the past, and they're just being transparent. He said they immediately removed the links, but still both his organization and he personally are going to face charges.

KELLY: OK. Well, help us make sense of what this may tell us about Russia today. I mean, is this part of a broader crackdown on civil society organizations?

KIM: Well, Russian NGOs for the past five years, since massive anti-government protests here in Russia, have said it's become a lot more difficult for them to work because of new legislation. The SOVA Center has already been labeled a foreign agent even though the group says it's a think tank and, you know, it's not a group pursuing any kind of political agenda. So I put the question to Verkhovsky. I asked him if he thinks the charges are part of a new campaign against NGOs.

ALEXANDER VERKHOVSKY: Is it a new campaign or just coincidence and maybe this case is isolated? I am not sure. We will see it, I think, in the nearest month. If there are more such cases, it's a new campaign.

KELLY: And how serious is this crackdown, Lucian? I mean, does Verkhovsky think he might personally be in danger? What's the threat to his group?

KIM: Well, right now the status is that they're just waiting for a court date. And Verkhovsky told me sort of the worst that could happen to them right now is that the fines could add up to $3,000. That's really a lot of money for a small organization in Russia. This group works out of a couple of rooms in a basement. Moreover, what Verkhovsky told me is that they'll be spending a lot of scarce resources on these - on their legal case instead of doing their actual work. And with all the appeal process, that could end up being six different, separate court cases. Well, as for Verkhovsky personally, he has been targeted by a neo-Nazi group in the past. And so I asked him if he was scared for his own safety, and this is what he told me.

VERKHOVSKY: It's like a permanent pressure. You feel it, but it becomes part of the life. It's - it's not an event.

KELLY: One voice there on what life feels like in Vladimir Putin's Russia in 2017.

Thanks for that reporting, Lucian.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.